Live virtual reality makes its golf debut on the iconic 17th hole at Sawgrass.
The 17th hole at The Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., is one of golf’s most notable holes – the sport’s Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. The small, quirky hole challenges and frustrates the sport’s best players, while thrilling fans.
“The great thing about that hole is there’s always something happening” said NBC executive producer Tommy Roy. “There’s always drama there.”
At this year’s Players Championship, fans will have unprecedented access to the drama. The hole will be available on live 360 video and virtual reality (VR) for all four days of the tournament, brought to viewers via PGA’s partnership with Intel’s True VR technology.
Bringing the Drama to VR
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect setting for True VR’s golf debut. At just 137 yards, 17 is one of the shortest holes on the PGA Tour, but make no mistake, it’s one of the most challenging, thanks to the green, set on an island, in the middle of a large water hazard.
Intel’s True VR will capture the action with three separate rigs of a dozen cameras each, set up at key locations on 17.
At 17, no location is as key as the water surrounding the green.
“We’ll have one camera in the water,” said David Aufhauser, managing director of Intel Sports Group. “We will be able to transport fans and enable them to pick whatever angle they want to be watching, including as if they were sitting on a little boat.”
While fans will have the power to select their vantage points, they can also put that power in the hands of professionals.
“They’ll have the ability to consume a VR-cast—a produced broadcast where we take them from shot to shot,” said Aufhauser. “So they can choose their own angle or sit back and watch the VR-cast.”
The hole has been the site of some of the most dramatic moments in The Players Championship.
“It’s like having a 3 o’clock appointment for a root canal,” said former PGA star Mark Calcavecchia, who has won 13 times on the tour, but never at Sawgrass. “You’re thinking about it all morning and you feel bad all day. Sooner or later you’ve got to get to it.”
In 2001, Tiger Woods hit a 60-foot putt that wound and twisted its way across the green to drop in the hole. The incredible shot gave him a birdie, and he ended up winning Sawgrass by one stroke.
In 2007, Sean O’Hair was two shots away from the lead, but his chances of a miracle comeback were scuttled when he shot a seven on the hole.
A year later, Paul Goydos missed the island and found the water surrounding it, to lose the tournament to Sergio Garcia.
“The 17th at Sawgrass is an iconic hole that even the most casual golf fan will recognize,” said Adam Fonseca, creator of the Golf Unfiltered website and podcast. “If I were asked which hole I’d want to experience in VR for the first time, I’d be hard-pressed to name one better than the island green.”
The Challenges of Golf
In addition to the NCAA basketball tournament, True VR (formerly known as Voke VR) has broadcast everything from football games to concerts to fashion shows. Bringing that technology to golf, however, added some new twists, which presented a unique challenge.
“Every basketball court is the same,” said Aufhauser. “They’re the same size. Everything’s in the same spot. That’s not the case for golf. Every course is different. Every hole on the course is laid out differently.”
The ball is also much smaller and travels much farther, both in distance and height. Would the True VR equipment be able to track shots? To find out, the technology was given a test run back in February, at the Genesis Open.
“It was all about how our technology worked best—which camera angle worked best, things like that,” Aufhauser said. “So we used that as a proof of concept and a learning process. And then we took all of the learning and applied it to create this experience at Sawgrass.”
Are Golf Fans Ready?
The February test convinced everyone that the technology is ready for golf, but the question of whether golf fans are ready for the technology is still up in the air.
Aufhauser is confident in the technology and the product. The only thing keeping him up at night as the tournament approaches is how it will be received.
“I want as many people to watch as possible,” he said. “The things I’ll be worried about are: How many people are watching? How are they watching it? What are they consuming? Do they like it? Are they liking the experience? What do they want?”
As with most new broadcasting technology, going all the way back to instant replay, it’s a matter of showing fans what’s now possible.
“Virtual Reality broadcasts could be the way TV events are moving,” Golf Unfiltered’s Fonseca said. “Golf is no exception. There have been many advancements in golf broadcast tech over the years, and VR seems like a logical next step. Who wouldn’t want to experience Sawgrass from the comfort of their living room? It could be a great way to introduce the atmosphere of a PGA Tour event to an entirely new audience who wouldn’t normally attend an event in person.”